John Doherty

Illustration by TP Flanagan.
County Donegal is the northern most county in the Republic of Ireland. It is actually more north then the British occupied Northern Ireland. County Donegal is a really interesting place owed to it’s geographic location and natural boundaries it has remained relatively isolated from the rest of the country through most of it’s existence. Another factor that has contributed to it’s augmentation of typical Irish life is it’s close proximity to Scottish shipping lanes and trade routes. This easy access led to Scottish immigrants settling in county Donegal which in turn changed the culture there adapting traditions and customs of those from across the sea in Scotland and melding with those of the Irish. This effected everything from religion, farming techniques, architecture and even what we’re talking about here, music. I should note that I am particularly fond of county Donegal because my family emigrated from there in the late seventeen hundreds to live in the United States.

John Doherty was born in Ardara, County Donegal around 1895. As in many countries the various regions develop their own style of music and Donegal is no different. John played Irish music in the Donegal style. Fiddling purists from down south scoffed at Donegal fiddling labeling it nothing more then bastardized Scottish music but such remarks are surely based in little fact. John was a true traveling musician. His trade was a tinsmith and he traveled around the country sometimes not even bringing his own fiddle but borrowed others. In fact his most sought after album “The Floating Bow” was recorded using a borrow instrument.

John grew up in a strict family of which most of it’s members played instruments. In a interview John states that early on when learning the fiddle he wasn’t allowed to play in the company of his parents and had to play in the barn until he met certain milestones. How true that is, I don’t know. I’d imagine it’d be pretty hard to achieve those milestones all on your own with no direction at all. His parents had to have stepped in and offered assistance at some points, that’s just good parenting. Whatever the methods used to teach John the fiddle they worked. John Doherty’s recordings are some of the best examples of Donegal fiddling to be found. It is noteworthy to state that in addition to fiddle John also sang. He knew a great many songs from the area and some of them he performed with no instrumentation at all.

John Doherty died on January 26, 1980. Fortunately for us he left behind five full length releases. Unfortunately for us some of them are near impossible to get. I wasn’t able to find any of his albums and have a anthology of sorts that was put out by Shanachie, I highly recommend it. If you can get your hands on one of his “real” albums and let me know how it is.

1) Pedlar’s Pack [1964]
2) The Floating Bow [1968]
3) Johnny Doherty [1974]
4) Taisce – The Celebrated Recordings [1978]
5) Bundle and Go [1977]

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